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Change your Life with Gratitude

Last time I talked about how we have a choice of stories to tell about our lives. We can tell the negative version or the positive version. It’s the difference between saying “Ugh! I have piles of dirty dishes to wash! Woe is me! ” Or “Wow! I have a sink, and a countertop and dishes to eat off of, and apparently food to eat as well, because otherwise my dishes wouldn’t be dirty! I am pretty fortunate.”

The difference between the two stories is not a question of accuracy but of attitude.

But as I mentioned last time, it’s often very hard to notice and remember the positive things, since as humans, we are programmed with a negativity bias which is great for staying alive the jungle, but less great for being happy and content.

Why so negative?

As humans we’re also really good at pattern recognition. We like seeing patterns, and things that don’t fit with the pattern stick out a mile. As an example, if you were to walk into a beautifully painted and furnished room that happened to have an ink stain or a small tear in the middle of the rug, you would almost definitely notice and focus on the stain rather than the pleasant effect of the rest of the room. And that’s not wrong. It’s a good thing that we especially notice things that don’t fit in. It makes us very good at locating and solving problems.

It’s a cliché that people who don’t have much appreciate what they do have more than people who have a lot. It’s also usually true. But it’s not something to be ashamed of if we happen to be blessed. It’s normal. It makes sense. The good things that make up the fabric of our lives form a pattern of peace and plenty. It makes sense that we should be accustomed to that and see any deviation from that pattern as an aberration. Similarly, a person whose life’s pattern is made up of danger and want will see good things as unusual and notice them more. If you’re starving and cold all the time and you are offered a warm delicious meal, a hot shower, and a cozy bed, you will definitely appreciate those things more than someone who has them every night.

But that doesn’t make you better than someone who has more blessings than you. For the moment, you could say that you are more aware of the goodness of your situation, but it would be equally true to say that they are more aware of the badness of things in their situation.

So the solution isn’t shaming ourselves for not noticing our blessings. (I’m imagining the stereotyped parent scolding his child for not appreciating dinner when children are starving in Africa.) Shame is neither appropriate nor helpful. What we need is gratitude.

How to change

Gratitude and happiness are very closely linked. If we want to be happy we need to notice our blessings and be grateful for them. But how?

Well, fortunately, there is a simple way to get better at seeing the good things. And it’s surprisingly easy.

Positive psychologist Shawn Achor author of The Happiness Advantage discovered that keeping a simple gratitude journal for just three weeks improved people’s levels of overall happiness and productivity, precisely by helping them see the good things that so often become invisible.

And it’s about the easiest thing there is. All you need is a paper and pen, and sixty seconds a day. (A smartphone or computer could work too, if you can’t find a pen and paper.)

Every evening you take one minute to write down three things you are grateful for that day– and they have to be three new things each day. You can’t write the same three things every day. If the first day you are thankful for coffee, chocolate and wine, you have to find three other things to be grateful for the next day. (Such a bummer, I know) They can be events, (I’m grateful my daughter didn’t scream all day) things, (I’m grateful for my new chair that makes my back happier) or states (I’m grateful that I’m married to my amazing husband.)

At the end of three weeks, you will have thought of 63 wonderful things about your life and written them down. It might seem like too small a thing to make much of a difference, but I can tell you from experience that it really does change the way you think about your life. All day long, your brain is remembering that you have to come up with three things to be grateful for. So instead of just looking for the things that don’t fit, or the potential threats, part of you will be looking all day long for good things to notice. It’s a whole new state of mind. And the effects last a lot longer than you would expect. Give it a try! Get a friend (or family member) to do it with you. It might even be fun.

Nothing kills the joy in writing like a bad pen. These pens make writing (and drawing) fun. I use them every chance I get. (Affiliate links. Purchases made through the links below give me a small commission at no cost to you)

And writing a gratitude journal is so much more fun if you actually have a journal to write in. Journals also make great gifts. I love blank books a rather absurd amount.

The classic notebook.

Fun and nautical:

And just pretty:

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Antibiotics for Christmas and Focusing on the Positive

It’s been several months since I last posted. I really didn’t want to be that blogger–the one who writes for a few weeks or months and then gets bored or runs out of ideas and stops, leaving yet another dead website littering the internet. But sometimes life happens and interferes with plans and goals; in this case I had to take time off to have a baby. (Totally worth it.)

Christmas is already a couple months away, and I usually try not to share too much of my personal life here, but today I want to talk about how I spent my Christmas, not because that story is important, but because the way we tell our stories is so much more important than we realize.

I woke up on Christmas morning feeling really miserable. I just hurt. It was a week after I had my baby, and I thought I would feel better soon, but I just kept hurting. I ended up spending most of the day laying on the sofa groaning and feeling sad that I was ruining my husband’s Christmas. Finally that evening I started running a fever and we ended the day by going to the emergency room where I was diagnosed with a postpartum infection and given antibiotics.

As I was laying around in the hospital having antibiotics pumped into my veins, I realized that there are two different ways to tell this story–and just about any other story in our lives–and the version we choose has a profound effect on who we are and how happy we are.

Versions of our story

So here’s the two versions of the story of my Christmas.

One version of the story goes like this:

My Christmas was totally ruined! I didn’t get to eat dinner with my friends like I was supposed to. I felt awful, and to top it off, I had to spend half the night in the emergency room. And half of that time was spent waiting around for people to show up, for tests to be done, or for medicines to be delivered. I didn’t even get to open any presents! Such a lousy Christmas.

And then there’s the other version:

Despite the fact that I got an infection of a sort that people used to die from, I got to spend Christmas with my caring husband and my healthy, adorable, good-tempered newborn. Not just one but two kind families agreed to take care of our toddler while we dealt with my illness. And we got to drive our own car to a well-staffed, well-equipped hospital within a few minutes of our home, where trained professionals (who were polite and cheerful despite having to work on Christmas) diagnosed and quickly treated my condition with medications that didn’t even exist a century ago. As a result I recovered quickly. We opened our Christmas presents the next day, and no one really minded waiting the extra day.

So what is the difference between these two stories? They’re both true. They both tell a factual story of how I spent my Christmas. Both take about the same amount of effort to tell. But the first story focuses on the negative while the second recognizes all the wonderful things that happened that day.

Every day things happen that we can’t control. People get sick, things break, plans fall through. Sometimes life is genuinely hard. I really wouldn’t care to repeat the experience of spending Christmas in the emergency room. But even if we can’t control the situation, we do have a choice about how we tell the story, both to ourselves, and to others.

We hear about being positive so much it can get old after awhile. It tends to sound like an invitation to self deception. But focusing on the positive doesn’t mean ignoring the negative. It just means looking at the whole picture. Yes, your car is broken and you can’t get to work, and yes, this is a major difficulty that you can’t ignore. But the fact that you had a car to begin with is such an incredible thing from a historical perspective that it does deserve some appreciation. Then there’s the fact that you have a job, that you live in a place where there are roads to drive your car on, and that you have the freedom to drive your car to your workplace; these are things which employed Americans take for granted every day, but so many people around the world don’t have these blessings.

Of course, as humans we do have a cognitive bias towards anomalies, especially negative ones. You will survive better in the savannah if the most salient thing is not the way the wind ripples through the golden grasses under the glowing sun, but the lion that’s about to eat you.

In the jungle, noticing the negative things will save your life, but in a world where most anomalies are not life-threatening, noticing only those things will make you waste emotional energy, and, if you aren’t careful, your whole life.

Remembering to tell the story of our lives positively changes our perspective on everything. So many of our inconveniences are actually just the backside of blessings. Maybe your house doesn’t have enough storage space. I can sympathize. It’s definitely a trial. But the fact that you have insufficient storage space presupposes that you have lots of belongings that are worth keeping–definitely a good thing. You could say that first world problems are the jagged edges of our blessings.

The Tapestry of Life

We’ve probably all heard life referred to as a tapestry whose pattern we will see only when we die. Here on Earth we only see the backside, and it doesn’t make much sense. But after we die we’ll see the beautiful pattern God has drawn with the various threads of our lives. It’s a nice metaphor, if a little overused.

But I think that on another level, we can see the front of our tapestry, if we take the effort. The car breaking down, the lack of storage space–these are the loose ends on the back of the tapestry. They don’t look nice, but who says we have to live on the backside of our lives all the time? Occasionally we should take a moment to look around at the front of our lives and see all the beautiful colors and patterns there.

It’s not a denial of reality–we know we have problems and if we try to ignore them, they will certainly remind us of their presence–but we have a choice: we can live our lives in a constant state of resentful irritation at our difficulties, or we can live in a permanent state of awed gratitude for what we have been given. I don’t know about you, but I think that awed gratitude sounds more pleasant.

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Odds and Ends

When I was growing up my mom had a box labeled “Odds and Ends,” where she stored bits of string and ribbon and cord. And whenever I had a project that required just a little bit of string, I could look through the box and find something that would work. I didn’t have to wait and go to the store to get something. I could just do my project and be done with it.

Now, I could write about thriftiness and reusing things, but I actually thought about my mom’s box for a very different reason.

A friend recently told me that she had improved her productivity and her level of general satisfaction with life by using the “in between” times to get things done, and that got me thinking: how much time do we lose to being in between things, waiting for stuff to happen, and enforced idleness? And so, of course, I googled it, and discovered that according to a survey conducted by Timex, over the course of a lifetime, the average American spends about 6 months waiting for stuff.

So how can we avoid wasting those 6 months?

Now I’m not suggesting that everyone should become frenetic multitaskers, checking emails while taking a shower, or putting makeup on while driving. In fact, I would enthusiastically discourage both of these activities. And I’m also not suggesting shortening leisure activities like sleeping, reading, taking walks, watching movies, or whatever you happen to find recharges you. These activities are important and deserve their time.

What I’m talking about are those moments that you probably haven’t noticed. Like while you’re waiting for your coffee to brew in the morning. Or waiting for supper to cook. Or waiting in line at the grocery store or at a doctor’s office. Or, if you’re a mom, maybe those moments where you’re sitting around breastfeeding, or waiting for a baby to go to sleep. Or waiting for a toddler who wants to do it “all by myself.”

Most of us spend these moments feeling stressed, thinking about all the things we could be doing if we didn’t have to wait. But what if we could turn them into opportunities instead of sources of stress? Instead of stressing about all the things we can’t do, what if we figured out what we can do?

Here are just a few ideas that I’ve come up with for using those in between moments. I’d love to hear other people’s ideas, too.

Waiting for something to cook

Whether it’s your coffee brewing in the morning, or your lasagna baking at night, waiting for things to get done can be really frustrating. But since you’re stuck in the kitchen anyway, there is probably a lot you can actually do.

I happen to have my home command center in the kitchen, so while waiting for stuff in the morning, I can look over my to do list. It only takes a few minutes, but it improves my day by reminding me what I actually want to get done, and in those little moments throughout the day I can check things off as I do them, and feel like I accomplished something, even if it was just eating lunch.

Or you can do those never-ending kitchen chores: sweeping the floor, washing a few dishes, wiping down or tidying counters, setting the table up for the meal, or putting away dishes in cabinets. Even dusting can be done quickly in between other things.

Or maybe you’re too tired to get all the kitchen chores done while you cook. In that case, take that time to relax as effectively as possible. While napping is probably not a good idea unless you’ve perfected the five minute power nap, there are things you can do to use that time to recharge yourself.

Sit down and put your feet up. Catch up on the reading you say you never have time to do. Do a simple mindfulness exercise: just take a couple of deep breaths, close your eyes, and focus on one sound, one sight, or one sensation. Don’t think about it, just experience it, relish it, savor it. Even just a minute spent that way can be surprisingly effective at reducing stress. I have recently started doing this, and it amazed me how different things seem when you try to experience things without thinking about them or judging them.

Waiting in line

I don’t know about you, but waiting in doctor’s offices is one of my least favorite ways to spend time. I spent quite awhile in one particular doctor’s office not too long ago, just waiting for a nurse to call my name. In some waiting rooms people talk to each other, but no one ever seems willing to talk at that office. Everyone is closed up in their own little bubble, texting,  reading, or staring at the TV set, which is invariably playing a vapid quiz show, or sports commentary.

There are magazines, but after I’ve paged through the first several issues of Good Housekeeping, looking at things I couldn’t afford even if I wanted them, I generally feel like I’ve gotten what I can out of the magazines.

But fortunately I’ve discovered that there are plenty of options for productive use of time even while waiting alone for an appointment.

First of all, you can use your phone in a productive way. That friend you haven’t talked to in a couple of months? It would probably be rude to call if there’s other people waiting with you, but why not send your friend a text or an email, just to see how they’re doing. It might make her day.

With a little preparation, your time in the waiting room can become even more effective. If you need to write something, you could consider installing a writing app on your phone, like Google docs, so that you can take it wherever you go. I’ve done a couple of different writing projects while waiting for things to happen. Or if you’re more old school, bring a notebook and catch up on your journaling or letter writing.

Or if you think you might have some time on your hands, bring a book, settle down as comfortably as you can in the waiting room chairs, and catch up on your reading. You might even be able to meditate if you want.

The important thing is to start with the attitude that the time you spend in the waiting room is not automatically wasted. This will leave you free to use it productively. Start thinking of it as special time reserved for your own relaxation, for catching up with your friends, and for doing things that you’re usually too busy to do, and you might even feel disappointed when they call your name.

Breastfeeding

For the first few weeks breastfeeding often takes concentration, but as time goes on and you and your baby get used to each other, it often becomes quite boring and frustrating to sit around for hours every day in unpredictable, 20-minute increments.

I really enjoyed those times, though, because it gave me a perfect excuse to sit down, make myself comfortable, and read a book. I think my baby appreciated it too, because I was more willing to let her linger as long as she wanted, since I was enjoying it, too. Some people instead watch movies, write to friends, or journal.

While transitioning my baby to her own bed in her own room I had to spend a lot of time getting her used to the idea of sleeping in the new place, which basically meant staying in a dark room until she went to sleep. It was unbelievably tedious until I realized I could install Google docs on my phone and write a book while I sat there. It made the process of sleep adjustment much more pleasant for all concerned, and I wrote a book.

Waiting for a child

One of the hardest things to do as a busy parent is to stand back and wait while your child tries to do something for himself. It’s so tempting to just shove the kid into his clothes, carry him out the door, and drop him in the car seat, and sometimes you have to do it that way.

But if you always do everything for your child, he’ll never learn new skills, and you’ll be stuck taking care of everything for him forever.

But I think it’s possible to avoid making the wait too tedious. There’s a few ideas you can try.

One thing I’ve found helpful is to tell my toddler what’s going on and have her get started on getting ready while I’m still getting ready, too. Or, if she’s taking her sweet time going to the potty, I can quickly wipe down the bathroom mirror, or throw in a load of wash.

Depending on your child’s attention span and level of development, this may or may not work. So another technique you can try is to simply think about it in a different way. Instead of viewing your child’s laggardly ways as a frustration, try to view them as quality time you spend with your child teaching him or her new skills. (And if you don’t believe this can work, I was able to get myself to think of diaper changes as quality time with my baby.) You might have to plan ahead and get started on activities a little earlier, but a simple change of focus can turn a source of stress into an enjoyable and productive experience.

Even those frustratingly short moments, like the time it takes for a pot to fill with water, can be useful to regain focus.

Try one of these ideas next time you’re waiting for your pot to fill up, the dish water to warm up, or your microwave to finish microwaving.

Take a couple of deep breaths. Close your eyes, straighten your shoulders, relax as many muscles as you can. Then think of one happy thing: maybe something you’re looking forward to this week, something you’re grateful for in your life, or something pleasant you heard or saw in the last few days. Or, take the moment to say a short prayer. Thank God for something you appreciate, praise Him, or ask Him for help in getting through the day.

These are just a few ideas. There are other odds and ends of time during the day that we tend not to use well, and that maybe even make us deeply unhappy. But I think there’s always a good use for time. Have you come up with any good uses for boring time?

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Conflict Resolution in Loving Relationships

In the fairy tales, the hero and heroine walk off to get married, and “live happily ever after.” In real life, we know that it’s not quite so simple. They have to die someday, for one thing: they are human after all, and man is mortal. And that’s not the only difference between fairy tales and real life.

In real life, real women have days when they just don’t feel happy. In his book Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus, John Gray cites research indicating that women have a monthly self-esteem cycle that rises and falls. Sometimes she feels on top of the world, and sometimes she just doesn’t. And then there’s pregnancy—raging hormones, strange symptoms, weird random pains—pregnancy can be difficult, and not being able to be pregnant when you want to can be even more difficult.

So real life isn’t as simple as the fairy tales make it sound. Marriage does not mean that you and your spouse will be confirmed in virtue, and suddenly have no human faults or failings, no mood swings, and no financial difficulties.

But that’s no reason you can’t be happy ever after with your spouse, as long as you are both willing to put in some work.

Here’s a few tips to help you deal with those days when you and your husband are just driving each other up the wall.

#1 Realize that it’s okay

So one day, you just feel like you can’t stand your husband anymore. Maybe yesterday, or a week ago, he was the love of your life and perfect in every way, but now, you can’t imagine what you could have seen in him, and you feel like everything you are doing is annoying him, too. Panic might set in: Love is gone! Oh no! What are we going to do?

First of all, you need to take a deep breath and realize that this is perfectly normal. People who live together drive each other insane sometimes. That’s just the way humans are. Even saints who spend all their time trying to be perfect and practice charity towards their neighbor end up rubbing some people the wrong way.So if you and your husband are bothering each other one day, it doesn’t mean your relationship is over, it doesn’t mean it’s even in trouble. You don’t need to put a marriage counselor on speed dial. Your situation is normal, and almost definitely temporary–as long as you handle it right.

#2 Try to identify an underlying cause

Sometimes, after you take a deep breath and remember that it’s not the end of the world, or even of your happy marriage, it becomes very easy to identify the issue. Sometimes it’s as simple as lunch being a really long time ago. After a nice dinner, it’s possible everything will be better. Sometimes you are worried about something and so your stress is rubbing off on your husband who reacts by getting stressed and thus stresses you out still more. This is very common.

Sometimes, though, there isn’t an easily identifiable underlying cause.

#3 Give it some time

Sometimes men need some time alone to regroup, solve a problem, or just relax. If you and your husband are driving each other insane, and it’s a recent thing—not a chronic problem for the last five years (in which case maybe you should try getting some help) then it’s possible that your man just needs some time to regroup. If he’s the mechanical sort, he might need to go tinker with whatever machine he’s working on at the moment. He might need to go out with some of his guy friends, especially if he rarely does that, or if it’s been longer than usual. Or he might need to go sit by himself and read a book for a few hours.

When he gets back from whatever his retreat is, you will probably find him as affectionate, considerate, and pleasant as he ever was. And it might not take as long as you think.

If you can take the opportunity to do something you enjoy at the same time—like hanging out with one of your buddies, or doing a project you enjoy, you might find that all you both needed was a very, very small amount of distance, and that your appreciation of each other is redoubled afterwards.

#4 Be careful how you say things

Sometimes you can’t wait. Sometimes you really do need to discuss a difficult topic right now, or you really need emotional support right now, even if your man is not really in the mood.

This can go well, too, but it takes some care. Men hate having their competence questioned, and hate being insulted. To attack the man’s ego is the fastest way to lose his love.

A lot of women have no desire to insult their husbands or boyfriends but manage to do it anyway, especially when they are not feeling great themselves.

Here are a couple of tips to avoid insulting your husband while you are having a hard time getting along:

a) Express your needs as your needs and not as his duties.

Suppose you need to discuss some issue that has come up, and he’s not in the mood, but it’s urgent. Try saying something like, “I’m really sorry, but I really need to talk about this right now. It won’t take long.” This is straightforward and non-accusatory. It simply states a fact. Now, this doesn’t mean it’s going to make him super happy—he might end up feeling bad because he knows it’s something he should be doing and doesn’t want to, but the point is to avoid giving him the impression that you are judging him and finding him wanting. If he takes your statement as a judgment on himself, that’s one thing. You don’t want to make it any harder than it has to be—you love the guy, right?

Try to avoid saying things like: “Why do you always avoid these discussions?” Or “You’re supposed to be the man in this house. Why are you trying to get out of making decisions?” These comments might seem innocuous, and justified, but they attack the man’s self-esteem. And the last thing a man needs is having his wife attack his self-esteem. It is hard for a man to love someone who makes him feel like a loser. These sorts of comments will inevitably escalate your conflict into something worse. Men in general, good men especially, want to feel that they are protecting and providing for their families—not doing chores assigned by their wives.

b) Be straightforward and calm.

Sometimes calm isn’t possible, but at least try to avoid hysterical exaggeration and raised voices. Also, nearly all men ever surveyed have stated that they prefer direct questions and direct requests to hints and vague suggestions. So if you really need something, just say so, and understand that if you husband loves you, he appreciates knowing what you need so that he can give it for you, and that if you don’t tell him what you need, he really genuinely won’t know. He might be grumpy about doing a particular thing at a particular moment, but if you have a solid relationship, and ask in a non-judgmental way, your husband will appreciate knowing your needs and being able to meet them.

c) Say thank you afterwards

If your husband does something for you, or talks over a difficult topic when he wasn’t in the mood, you should thank him afterwards. Thank him, and tell him it made you feel better. Men in general have a different way of looking at the world than women generally do, and it helps if you can give him a window into your world and how he made it better with what he did. (Also, if you show your appreciation for what he does for you, he’s more likely to repeat the behavior in the future, and who wouldn’t want that?)

Even the happiest married couples have their rough moments, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t happy. If you can handle those moments well, they will actually strengthen your union, deepen your love, and contribute to your mutual success as married people.

Some resources for helping your relationships thrive. (These are affiliate links)

This book describes how men (in general) and women (in general) react differently to different things. Its goal is to help people deal with the men and women in their own lives.

Yes, I recommend this book a lot, but that’s because it’s so good. Even if your relationship is marvelous, you can get something out of this book.

This is one I only read recently. Written by a woman who interviewed and surveyed dozens of men, it talks about what men want, how they think, and how women come across to men. I read it in one day. It’s a fun, easy read with a lot of interesting information. In the companion volume For Men Only, she explains to men how women work. 

A classic book on interpersonal relationships of all sorts. You might be surprised to discover that you’re making all sorts of mistakes in dealing with people.

And sometimes, the solution to our problems is chocolate…. or wine…. But Amazon doesn’t seem to sell wine…

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How Thinking About Death Can Improve Your Life

Most of us don’t like thinking about death very much. Some people even consider it downright harmful and morbid. But on the other hand, lots of wise people throughout history have said that it is helpful to think about death. In fact, Saint Benedict of Nursia, who founded the famous Benedictine order of monks, wrote “Keep death daily before your eyes.”

But what good could it possibly do to think about death every day?

There are many different answers to that question, but I found a new one the other day quite by accident. I was looking at a newspaper and ran across an obituary notice for a man who had died locally. After some biographical details, it said, “He will always be remembered as an avid hunter and daily lotto player.”

This description really struck me. I have nothing against hunting or playing the lottery. But is that what I would want to be remembered for? It made me sad to read that there was a human being who would be remembered for nothing more than that.

When I die, I want people to remember me for having been something or done something of worth. I would like to be remembered as a good friend, a good teacher, a good wife, a good mother. I would like people to think that I had left this world—or at least my part of it—a better and happier place than I found it.

They say that Alfred Nobel, who founded the Nobel foundation which grants prizes to notable people in various fields, started the foundation because he had the rare privilege of reading his own obituary before he died.

Nobel was a scientist who, among other fascinating exploits, invented dynamite. He had good intentions when he did it—he wanted to make it available for people to use for mining, and other commercial purposes. But its most notable use was in warfare, and when his brother died, a French newspaper mistakenly thought that Alfred had died, and announced it under the headline, “The Merchant of Death is Dead!”

Nobel decided that he was not satisfied with the legacy he was leaving to the world. He wanted to be remembered for something other than inventing a weapon, so he founded the now famous Nobel Prize foundation.

If you read your obituary in tomorrow’s paper, what would it say? Are you happy with being remembered that way?

What are you going to do about it?

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